Whether it’s a cat playing the piano, an unfortunate reporter taking a tumble from her grape-stomping tub, or an outrageous review of a product or service, the Internet has an enduring love affair with viral content.
The strange alchemy of technology and emotion that transforms a piece of media from just another image, video, song or document into something that simply must be shared with simply everyone is made possible by today’s interconnected world. A dictator’s crackdown, a celebrity meltdown, or an impossible touchdown can spawn videos and image macros that are plastered across the world’s Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr accounts before you can say “Holy Meme, Batman!”
But what does it take, exactly, for content to become contagious? Marketing professor Jonah Berger has narrowed it down in his book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On. According to Berger, the first step to any successful viral venture is emotion. We might be living in an electronic world, but just like our unplugged predecessors, we respond most powerfully to stimuli that make us feel things deeply. Like it or not, the human animal is driven by emotion, and if your content fails to evoke a strong feeling—happiness, surprise, amusement, rage, etc.—then its chances of going viral are next to nil.
Beyond simple emotional engagement, Berger identifies five other key elements necessary to take your content to the next level of shareability: social currency, triggers, public observability, practical value, and storytelling. When these factors combine, we are driven to meet our deep-set needs to share a narrative, appear intelligent (or at least knowledgeable) by providing practical information, and gain social credibility with our peers by being seen to do so. Once this urge takes hold, a quick click on the “share” button or firing off a pithy tweet is the natural result.
Don’t forget the hardware aspect of managing your viral content. If you’re shooting for millions of views and shares, you’ll also need to make sure your hosting package has what it takes to manage sudden spikes in demand.
You don’t need to be a psychologist to create quality, engaging content, but you do need a fundamental understanding of the humans who are taking it in. Just remember to make sure your site can handle the load once your next masterpiece catches on.
The Six Insider Secrets of Contagious Content
It’s no secret that relevant and valuable content can help raise brand awareness and exposure. With today’s consumers facing information overload everywhere they turn, far too much great content goes unnoticed. Thanks to research, we now have a better understanding of the psychology behind what drives consumers to share content. Let’s take a look.
A Brief Lesson in Viral Psychology
The stronger the feeling, the more likely to spur a responsive action.
High-energy content drives “social transmission” (i.e. shares).
Content that evokes high-arousal emotions, whether positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) is more viral than content that evokes low-arousal, or deactivating, emotions (e.g., sadness).
The more emotion content evokes, the more viral it will become.
People may share emotionally charged content to make sense of their experiences, reduce dissonance, or deepen social connections.
They are more likely to share an advertisement when it evokes more amusement and a customer service experience when it evokes more anger.
Research by Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman has shown a one-standard deviation increase in the amount of anger an article evokes = an additional 2.9 hours as the lead story on the New York Times website, nearly 4x the average number of hours articles spend in that position.
More practically useful, interesting, and surprising content is more viral because it reflects positively on the people sharing it.
Digging Deeper: How Content Evokes Emotion
Level of interest and speed of interest piqued
Brain researchers and scientists have found that the emotion of interest is continually present under normal conditions and is the central motivation for engagement.
Interest and its interaction with other emotions influences all other mental processes. That is why titles are so massively important.
On average, 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest.
The speed of emotional activation
Visual, easy-to-understand and consume content is generally the most viral because it communicates its strong emotional impact within the first few seconds of viewing.
According to Nielsen, on the average web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit.
Visual content is better at conveying emotionality and being understood quickly and easily.
40 of the top 50 posts of all time on Reddit are either images or videos.
Length of content
The New York Times article study found that longer articles tend to be shared far more often.
The correlation remained strong even after taking the amount of site exposure into account. Sheer word count was more closely correlated with sharing than any other variable examined.
Researchers suggest this is because the longer articles were about more engaging topics.
Because they evoked awe, science articles outperformed all others in the study of New York Times most emailed articles.
30% of articles on the most emailed list were on science-related topics.
Amount of user engagement
People love to talk about themselves.
Some research suggests that at least 40% of face-to-face communication is about the self, and over 80% of social media shares are self-focused.
Which emotions to evoke
Positive content is more viral than negative content, but that’s because virality is partially driven by physiological arousal.
Experts say that the emotion of awe is the safest and most reliable path towards viral content.
According to Jonah Berger, of all the variables studied in the New York Times article study, awe had the strongest relationship with an article making the most-e-mailed list.
Creative inventions, completed labor-intensive projects, stunning design, and novel are all ways to prompt awe among an audience.
In a study conducted by Moz of what made successful *visual* content go viral:
Top 5 Emotions Evoked (most common):
Bottom 5 Emotions Evoked (least common):
Jonah Berger’s 6 Key Drivers That Shape Viral Content (STEPPS)
- Social Currency: Peer popularity of the idea
People talk about things that make them look good.
Give your audience a way to look good, feel special, or like an insider, and they’ll tell others — and spread the word about you along the way.
Many brands that have leveraged the power of social currency have not invested in advertising — they rely on word of mouth after offering exclusivity to a select group of influencers.
- Triggers: Daily reminders of the idea or product
Triggers have a big impact on human behavior.
They shape the choices we make, the things we talk about, and the products we buy.
For example, when most people think about peanut butter, jelly comes to mind.
Playing French music at the grocery store makes people more likely to buy French wine; playing German music makes people more likely to buy German wine.
By linking your product or idea to prevalent triggers you can help your own initiatives succeed.
- Emotion: How much you inspire a deep emotional reaction
The key to evoking emotions with content is about arousal — the degree to which different emotions activate us or fire us up.
People are more likely to share some content over others because the arousal — whether it be anger, awe, or humor — evokes us to pass it on.
- Public (Observability): High visibility of a product essentially sells itself
Using logos, colors, and other design elements to make a product more public facilitates product adoption and increases the chance that more people find out about your product or idea.
The famous Macintosh Apple logo used to face the user when the laptop was closed. Steve Jobs realized that while this helped the user figure out which way to open the laptop, when they did, the logo was upside-down for everyone else to see.
- Practical Value (Usefulness): We want to share useful information
The more useful a piece of information is, the more it will be shared on social media.
Discounts, travel recommendations, or articles about the best sunscreen to use all get passed around because they’re helpful.
Highlight incredible deals or useful tips and more people will pass it on.
- Storytelling: A narrative surrounding the idea or product provides stickiness
Stories are the way of making sense of things where we don’t have facts.
People will talk about a product or brand if it’s part of a broader narrative.
- 6 Ways to Make Your Story Go Viral – inc.com
- The Secret Recipe for Viral Content Marketing Success – moz.com
- Why Content Goes Viral: the Theory and Proof – moz.com
- What Makes Online Content Viral? – jonahberger.com
- Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome – nytimes.com
- Viral’s Secret Formula – jonahberger.com
- How to Trigger Word of Mouth – jonahberger.com
- How to Write Magnetic Headlines – copyblogger.com